We used to think that adolescents were basically adults, just with fewer miles on them, said Dr. Frances Jensen, by way of introducing the subject of the Child Mind Institute’s 2016 Spring Luncheon Monday. But now we know that the human brain isn’t finished developing until the mid to late twenties. And that leaves teenagers with brains that, while they are well developed in areas that involve emotion, have immature frontal lobes — the area that involves self-regulation.
“Teenagers experience emotions in Technicolor, while we adults experience them in black and white,” said Dr. Jensen, the author of The Teenage Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Survival Guide to Raising Adolescents and Young Adults and chair of the Department of Neurology at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania.
Dr. Jensen discussed the teenage brain with Dr. Harold Koplewicz, founding president of the Child Mind Institute, the conversation moderated by actress, comedian, author and producer Ali Wentworth. All three shared their experiences with being the parents of teenage children.
Teenagers are wired not only to feel things more deeply but to learn much faster than adults do, explained Dr. Jensen, because they have more connections (called synapses) in their brains than they will later. This is critical because these are the years in which they need to learn not only trigonometry and physics, but to become independent adults, noted Dr. Koplewicz. That involves separating from parents, forming a social network, choosing a vocational path and determining a sexual orientation — huge developmental tasks that often involve trial and error and experimentation.
“Teenagers are very much about themselves. They’re figuring themselves out,” Dr. Jensen observed. “That’s in part because they don’t know why they did that dumb thing last night.”
So a good way to approach them, when they’ve done something risky or dangerous, she said, is not to get angry but to “give them the TED talk.” Teach them about their brain — how it works for and against them. Make sure they understand that their ability to make quick decisions isn’t completely reliable. Give them the facts: as a teenager you’re a very fast learner but please remember that your frontal lobe isn’t really working for you yet.
Dr. Koplewicz urged parents to make sure they have regular opportunities to talk to their teenagers — don’t let them escape — and when it comes to difficult issues like substance use and sex, “Don’t wait for them to start the conversation.”
“When we wait for them,” quipped Wentworth, “it’s likely to start with ‘I’m pregnant.’ “
One thing parents should make sure teenagers understand is that they are more vulnerable to addiction than adults are, again because their brains are wired for fast learning. Teenagers get addicted “harder, faster, longer, stronger,” Dr. Jensen noted.
And it’s useful to let them know, the panel agreed, that their wiring also makes them especially susceptible to peer pressure. To avoid bad decisions, Dr. Jensen noted, parents should urge teenagers to step back and take time to think when they are being pressured to do something risky.
Dr. Koplewicz added that when you’re being pressured to do something you know is unwise, you get a feeling in the pit of your stomach. “Tell kids, ‘Listen to your gut,’ ” he said.
While we tend to worry most about the high school years, Dr. Jensen noted that well into college parents may need to help their children get and stay organized: another task that depends on that not-yet-mature frontal lobe.
“Even in college,” she said, “you may need to give them a frontal lobe assist from time to time.”